A Precarious Regional Security Balance in the Gulf

Posted in Iran | 23-Apr-07 | Author: Christian Koch

"The Arab Gulf States in this dramatic strategic climate are often not adequately recognized."
"The Arab Gulf States in this dramatic strategic climate are often not adequately recognized."
The Gulf region has taken center stage in world politics. Violence in Iraq that threatens to spill over and undermine the stability of the entire Middle East, the continued possibility of a military confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program, terrorism that is fostered by Islamic militancy grounded in the unresolved conflicts stretching from Afghanistan to Iraq to Palestine, and a volatile oil market coupled with concerns over energy security in turn leading to record oil prices – these are just some of the obvious issues that have pushed the Gulf to the forefront of international headlines. For many, the Arab-Israeli conflict remains the central issue dominating the Middle East, but the fact is that a strategic shift has taken place towards the Gulf. While a resolution of the Arab-Israeli issue is still paramount, and no doubt such a step will also lessen many of the underlying tensions currently at play in the Gulf, this conflict has become one among many and not necessarily the one that impacts on global stability most directly.

With Iran and Iraq having become such dominant themes, the position and views of the Arab Gulf States in this dramatic strategic climate is often not adequately recognized. That the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) have deep concerns was emphasized by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia when he warned at the December 2006 annual GCC summit meeting in Riyadh that the “Arab region is besieged by a number of dangers, as if it was a powder keg waiting for the spark to explode.” Similarly, Kuwait’s Foreign Minister Shaikh Mohammad al-Salem al-Sabah warned in an interview on April 9, 2007 that the region was headed for yet another confrontation if steps were not taken soon to lessen the tensions.

In some ways, the Arab Gulf States represent the antithesis to the violence that plagues the Middle East. High oil prices have provided for an economic boom period that is bringing large-scale change and development to the region. Tremendous investments are being made to improve infrastructure, revamp education and social services, and overall build modern societies. On the political as well as on the social front, these states are undertaking various degrees of reforms that have so far led to the broadening of political participation, greater involvement of women in both the political and economic life of their respective states, and improvements in areas such as transparency, accountability and the rule of law. The Arab Gulf States are thus societies very much in the midst of transformation, which, in turn, makes the position and views of these states critical to the present debate.

Regionally, in May 2006, the GCC celebrated the 25th anniversary of its establishment. In a statement, GCC Secretary-General Abdulrahman Al-Atiyyah emphasized that the council had succeeded in overcoming dangers and difficulties while at the same time accomplishing achievements despite the unsettled regional environment. He underlined that the importance of the GCC lay in its joint authority to sustain the stability and security of all its member states. On the one hand, the GCC has often been criticized as an ineffectual organization that too many times has refrained from taking a clear position to promote regional security. Yet, on the other, there can be no doubt that there exists a lot of common ground among the member states when it comes to the issues and challenges with which the region finds itself confronted. The common interests at play and the common threat perceptions that persist continue to give the GCC a sense of purpose. For example, projects such as the establishment of a common market by the end of 2007 are being pursued with a high degree of seriousness and, if successful, will see the further strengthening of regional integration efforts. Also, the GCC has taken on a more determined diplomatic role as evidenced by the statements of its leadership and by the holding of numerous regional meetings to lessen animosities.

The problem is that such collaboration does not exist at the broader regional level with respect to Iran and Iraq. The littoral states of the Gulf do not engage in or promote confidence-building measures or cooperative endeavors that lessen threat perceptions or could be seen as a point of departure for a more inclusive regional security organization. And while there are many factors that contribute in one way or another to the current unstable and deteriorating security situation in the Gulf, broadly speaking, it is the issues of Iraq, Iranian policies and the role of the United States that provide the framework under which the international relations of the Gulf needs to be examined and further analyzed. A closer look will illuminate this further.


"Arab region - a powder keg waiting for the spark to explode"
"Arab region - a powder keg waiting for the spark to explode"
Given the current internal security nightmare, Iraq is a main issue of concern for the GCC states. Confronted by the almost complete breakdown of state security with widespread violence, indiscriminate killing and significant sectarian and ethnic bloodshed, the country is being pushed to the brink of a collapse. The killing of almost 200 people in multiple bombings on April 18, 2007 in Baghdad underlined this desperate situation. While the year 2006 had started positively with hopes of a stable government following the December 2005 parliamentary elections, by the summer of that year it had become clear that the nascent political process was unable to provide Iraq the necessary transition to stability. The fact that it took Iraqi factions over four months until a new government was formed in April 2006 was itself symbolic of the inability of the various factions to come together and produce a necessary government of national unity. The US failure to crack down on the insurgency combined with the open sectarian warfare following the February 2006 attack on the Samarra Shi’a mosque produced what Richard Haass, the former director of the policy planning staff at the US State Department referred to as “part failed state, part civil war, and part regional war.”

The announcement of a new surge strategy by the Bush administration in early 2007 has so far failed to turn the conflict around and move the initiative back to coalition forces and the nascent Iraqi security forces. For the GCC states, the so-called new approach represented a dead end to begin with as it failed to address some of the root causes of Iraqi instability – i.e. the failed political process, the continued existence of militias along sectarian and ethnic lines, and the interference from regional states, primarily Iran. There is no confidence in the region that the current government of Nuri al-Maliki is capable of or even willing to take a determined stance that confronts the elements creating chaos and instability. The result has been that as far as the GCC is concerned, Iraq was a problem that could no longer be ignored and left to the US to resolve. Always wary about the implications of the US decision to topple the regime of Saddam Hussein since the actual invasion in March 2003, that wariness has since been replaced by outright fear that, if left unchecked, instability and violence inside Iraq will have direct consequences for both the regional balance of power and for the GCC’s own domestic security.

The problem is that there are no real answers to this problem. The criticism of the US approach does not mean that the GCC states want the US to withdraw precipitously from Iraq and leave the job unfinished. Under such a scenario, an unstable and chaotic Iraq would become a magnet for terrorists with the possible wider Sunni-Shi’a schism constituting an additional threat to the region. In December 2006, Iraq’s Shi’ite leaders expressed anger over Saudi statements that they would support the country’s Sunni Arabs in the event of a US pullout. An article written by Saudi security expert Nawaf Obaid in the Washington Post noted that the withdrawal of US forces could see Saudi Arabia giving Iraq’s Sunnis funds, arms and supplies to counter Tehran’s alleged support for Iraqi Shiite militias. If the US leaves, Obaid wrote, “one of the first consequences will be massive Saudi intervention to stop Iranian-backed Shiite militias from butchering Iraqi Sunnis.” Similarly, although certainly not supportive of this stance, Kuwait’s Amir Shaikh Sabah Al-Ahmad Al-Sabah voiced his concerns when he stated: “In the current circumstances, an American withdrawal (from Iraq) would in no way help bring back stability … on the contrary, the situation would worsen and we would see a civil war of great intensity for which the whole world would pay the price.” Thus, for the GCC, it is critical that the US succeeds in Iraq.

The degree to which Iran is interfering inside Iraq substantiates the concern of the Arab Gulf States. This includes Iran’s support for the Shi’a-led government as many of the current officials have close ties to Tehran having spent their exile years inside Iran waiting for the overthrow of the Saddam regime. It also involves the close links between the Iranian military and the Iraqi Shi’a militias ruling the southern part of Iraq, the extensive intelligence activities that Iranian agents are involved in as well as their indirect support for aspects of the Iraqi insurgency vis-à-vis the US occupation. As far as the GCC is concerned, Iran is playing a largely disruptive role inside Iraq and intentionally not being more constructive to calm down the situation. Iran’s actions are seen as part of a strategy to ensure that it emerges as the default power inside Iraq, ultimately leading to the establishment of a Shi’a militant state in the country.

The GCC states thus find themselves confronted with a quandary as far as Iraq is concerned. Their repeated warnings about the course of action inside Iraq are being summarily ignored by the United States, a situation compounded by the recognition that their own role can only have a very minimal impact on the events on the ground. As a result, the Arab Gulf States have developed a policy largely centered on damage limitation rather than actual involvement, with a premium placed on the securing of borders and preventing extremist elements that have been battle-hardened inside Iraq back into the GCC states. For its part, Saudi Arabia has begun to play a more active diplomatic role by sponsoring meetings among the different Iraqi factions to limit the sectarian warfare and also urging Iran to be more constructive. The question that presents itself, however, is whether the complete disintegration of Iraq can still be avoided while a more coordinated regional approach to contain the turmoil is being put together.


"The Gulf States show greater involvement of women in both the political and economic life."
"The Gulf States show greater involvement of women in both the political and economic life."
The fact that the devastating developments inside Iraq began to encroach on the broader security debate within the GCC is directly related to the policy actions of the two other main actors defining Gulf security – Iran and the United States. Both these states have for the past several decades competed over their role and influence throughout the Gulf, with the US basically trying to contain a revolutionary Iran that has challenged both the US position as well as the regional order, and with Iran trying to break out of a US stranglehold that has attempted to contain Iran in various degrees for over three decades. With its decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and its subsequent failure at establish stability in the post-Saddam era, the US inadvertently opened the door for Iran to extend its power and influence virtually unopposed. The more the US became bogged down in Iraq, the more the power wielders in Tehran have sought to challenge American interests throughout the entire Middle East.

Naturally, Iran has moved in to take maximum advantage of this opportunity. From the Gulf perspective, however, instead of offering an alternative to the US for greater indigenous Gulf security relations, Iranian policies in Iraq and in Lebanon, as exemplified in its support for Hizbollah, show an Iran determined to expose US weaknesses rather than serving as a constructive force for broader stability. Besides its policies in Iraq, the Iranian regime has also taken a completely uncompromising stance on its nuclear program with President Ahmadinejad making it crystal clear that nothing could stop Iran’s determination to become a nuclear power. In response, the Gulf Arab states have called for a more active strategy to counter Iranian influence with the result that regional tensions have intensified.

The Arab Gulf states see current Iranian policy as simply taking advantage of the American problems in Iraq and Afghanistan with the ultimate objective of establishing Iranian hegemony over the region, i.e. an Iran as a regional superpower armed with a nuclear bomb. The disappearance of Iraq as a strong regional buffer state in combination with US weakness and strategic mistakes have added to the perception that the Arab side of the Gulf will ultimately pay the price of Iran’s quest for hegemony. The fact that Iran does not engage in any confidence-building with the GCC states and does not talk to its neighbors on an equal basis, means that there is no reason to feel complacent about Iranian plans and ambitions.

Meetings between Iranian and Saudi officials have not alleviated the concerns of the Arab Gulf States about growing Iranian power in any significant way. As far as Iran is concerned, these meetings are largely a media opportunity to prove that they are engaged in consultations with their Gulf neighbors and that they are keen to maintain friendly and brotherly relations. The Iranian strategy is focused on the hope of “neutralizing” the Gulf states in any confrontation with the US or the international community. In this context, it has been the Iranian objective to convey assurances about Iran “good intentions” but without any substantial or practical move to backup such assurances. Tehran has been unable to address or lessen the GCC worries and concerns about the Iranian interventionist policy in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine. Similarly, Iran has been unable to offer satisfactory assurances about the “peaceful intentions” of its nuclear program.

At the same time, there is a realization that it is important to have open channels of communication with Tehran to make it clear to the Iranian leadership that the GCC states have real concerns about Iranian actions and to make sure there is no misunderstanding about what those concerns are. The meetings between Saudi Arabia and Iran have served this purpose with King Abdullah warning President Ahmadinejad about playing with fire and risking the security of the entire region. The Iranian President was also warned not to underestimate the US determination to act against Iran’s nuclear program if it felt it necessary to do so.

The fact that the Kingdom has played an active role in regional diplomacy is important but it has so far not resulted in a discernable shift on the part of Iran. While Saudi Arabia and Iran concentrated on pragmatic issues rather than ideological differences in the period from approx. 1997 until 2004, the coming to power of the ultra-conservative administration of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the rising concern over the nature of the Iranian nuclear program and the involvement of Iran in Iraqi domestic affairs, have led to an end of the period of détente and reappearance of a host of disagreements. Diplomatic exchanges and various joint Saudi-Iranian economic collaborations (particularly in the fields of power and petrochemicals) continue, but Saudi Arabia has also begun to counter what it considers to be unacceptable Iranian influence throughout the Middle East. While there are some differences between the GCC states as to the degree to which Iran needs to be confronted, there is overall agreement that the Islamic republic needs to come to its senses.

One specific response has been the decision by the GCC states to pursue a peaceful nuclear program as decided by the GCC summit meeting in December 2006. The decision to begin looking at a research program for the development of civilian nuclear energy was a direct response to Iran’s failure to accept the international deadlines at enriching uranium. It not only indicated to Tehran that if push comes to shove, the Arab Gulf States would not sit idly by waiting for an Iranian nuclear bomb, it was also a challenge to Iran’s government to place its program under full IAEA supervision as any possible future GCC program would be. It was also an indicator that the threat of a far broader and more debilitating regional arms race into nuclear weapons was indeed a possibility.

Another area of concern is Iran’s potential interference in the domestic affairs of the GCC states. As far as Iran is concerned, their leadership looks at the Shi’a minorities in the Gulf region as a political and intelligence asset, and links in the Gulf States which were originally established after the Iranian revolution in 1979 remain intact. Indeed, the development in Lebanon with the growing influence of Hizbollah in recent years, and the developments in post-occupation Iraq where one has witnessed the success of the pro-Iranian political Shi’a groups in controlling power and state institutions, has greatly enhanced Tehran's ability to interfere in the Gulf states should such a strategy become necessary. Iran has also invested heavily in promoting Shi’ism as an identity that oversteps the local and national identity, i.e. that the Shi’a in Iraq identify themselves primarily as Shi’a and not as Iraqi or Arab. Tehran thus tries to promote Shi’ism as a political ideology rather than as an Islamic school of thought or a way of religious worship. All of this seeks to maintain and enhance Iran’s ability to stir trouble and generate a serious threat to the Gulf states’ internal stability if such a move is required.

A dangerous climate

"High oil prices have provided for an economic boom period"
"High oil prices have provided for an economic boom period"
The strategic climate in the Gulf region has worsened and not improved since the US invasion of Iraq. At present, the very real possibility of further conflicts looms large. The disintegration of Iraq could lead to region-wide sectarian and ethnic conflicts from which no Middle Eastern country would be spared. Equally, the determination by Iran to obtain a nuclear capability could lead to a direct intervention by the United States and other forces to prevent such a situation. The stakes are indeed huge.

To overcome the present deficit, regional as well as global stakeholders need to raise their stake of involvement as means to lessen existing tensions and begin the process of constructing a new security framework. This should revolve around what Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal suggested in December 2004 when he called for a new framework on Gulf security built around a unified GCC, stable Iraq, friendly Iran and a prosperous Yemen. More specifically, the following steps should be considered:

  • It is important for the Arab Gulf states to act independently, take stock of the regional situation, and design future security arrangements without leaving everything for the US to formulate. Saudi Arabia has taken the lead in this with its hosting the Arab summit for the first time, with the crafting of the Palestinian Mecca agreement and with its financial support for Lebanese re-construction. These efforts needs to be further supported
  • Given the region overall complexities, a combination of national, regional and international-level involvement is needed to mitigate the continued deterioration in the security environment. Given the current complicated role of the United States, the involvement of European and Asian states here needs to be raised.
  • Regional security needs to be placed on the agenda of any important regional meeting. There is an increased need for dialogue to overcome faulty perceptions.
  • The business community must be encouraged to play its role in the political process and to also encourage moderation on regional actors. Greater communication among business sectors in opposing states can alleviate tensions.
  • The business community must also activate program for the employment of Arab youth. Geopolitical tensions cannot divert from this importance.

For the GCC states, the current strategic environment is one filled with dilemmas to which no easy and clear choices exist. The GCC states realize that action is required but they are also acutely aware that their power to influence events is limited. Nevertheless, this cannot be seen as a reason for inaction.